cover image Charming Billy

Charming Billy

Alice McDermott. Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc, $22 (280pp) ISBN 978-0-374-12080-1

The death of charming Billy Lynch from alcoholism is the starting point from which McDermott (At Weddings and Wakes) meticulously develops this poignant and ironic story of a blighted life set in the Irish-American communities of Queens, the Bronx and the Hamptons. With dialogue so precise that a word or two conjures a complex relationship, she examines the curse of alcoholism and the cost it takes on family and friends. Did Billy drink because of a broken heart caused by the death of Eva, the young woman he ardently loved who had gone back to Ireland after their brief summer together? If so, his cousin Dennis has much on his conscience, since he knew that Eva used the money Billy sent her for return passage to put a down payment on a gas station for the man she decided to marry. Dennis spared Billy the humiliation of public jilting by inventing the story of Eva's demise. Or is alcoholism ""the genetic disease of the Irish,"" a refuge for souls who can sustain their religious faith in an afterlife only if earthly existence is pursued through a bleary haze? Was plain, courageous Maeve, the woman Billy eventually married, devastated by his drinking, or was her uncomplaining devotion yet another aspect of an ancient pattern in Irish families? McDermott sensitively probes the ties of a people bound by blood, long acquaintance, shared memories, the church and the tolerance of liquor in its men. If Billy drank to sustain his belief in heaven, to find redemption for his unfulfilled life on earth, is the church's teaching about death ""a well intentioned deception""? McDermott's compassionate candor about the demands of faith and the realities of living brings an emotional resonance to her seamlessly told, exquisitely nuanced tale. (Jan.)